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The right to vote is the most basic privilege of American citizenship and for a truly open and independent judiciary the citizens of Florida should vote “Yes” on the referendums regarding the merit selection and retention of their trial judges on Nov. 7. Under the current system, voting for trial judges who are up for re-election is more myth than reality. The fact is that of the 127 trial judges up for re-election this year, 110 of their names never appeared on the ballot. The sad reality is that the citizens of the state of Florida never vote on the overwhelming majority of judges. Merit selection assures voters that their judges are fully qualified to make the very important decisions that judges are expected to make. The only qualifications under the current election system for judges are that a candidate must reside in the circuit served by the court and be a Florida attorney with a total of five years of experience. With the merit system, judicial candidates are required to complete a comprehensive application and undergo an interview with a nine-member panel composed of lawyers and nonlawyers. The panel, called a judicial nominating commission, then recommends from three to six candidates to the governor for appointment. Merit retention means that every judge at the end of his or her term will be named on the ballot, and voters will be asked whether that judge should be kept in office. This gives voters the ability to decide whether their judges should remain on the bench based on their performance. Our Florida courts send a clear message to anyone who comes before a judge: Expect impartiality, respect and seriousness, not campaign promises, cash contributions and political consultants. Elections for trial court judges are seeing record-shattering spending. Circuit court candidates in Florida raised almost $7 million as of mid-September, and lawyers and candidates accounted for more than $2.8 million of that total. Additional funds are likely to be raised and spent in the four run-off races that will be decided on the November ballot. This politicking is spurring complaints that the independence of the judiciary is being threatened. Judges must be neutral. They must be chosen for their background as lawyers, their legal reasoning, their demeanor, and their character, not by campaigns that amount to little more than popularity contests. The cost of judicial elections throughout this country is at an all-time high. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s chief business lobby, is weighing in on judicial races with its first ad campaign ever by buying TV spots in Ohio, Michigan and other states where campaigns have run into the millions. Campaign attacks and attack ads in judicial races are also prevalent. Judicial campaigns are becoming more and more indistinguishable from true political campaigns, severely tarnishing the independence of judiciary in this country. This is wrong. The Florida Bar studied this issue extensively for many months, including forming a special committee, listening to Floridians at public forums and hearing the views expressed by members of the Florida Bar’s Citizens Forum, an advisory group of nonlawyers representing many different citizen constituencies from across the state. After very carefully reviewing all of the input received from throughout the state, and after listening to members of our Citizens Forum, the Florida Bar’s Board of Governors decided at its February 2000 meeting that the interests and needs of the people of Florida will be best served by adopting the merit process for selecting trial judges. As part of our examination of this issue, the Bar looked at how these two methods of selecting judges have worked in Florida, as well as in the more than 30 other states that use some form of the merit process for judicial selection and retention. No state that has adopted the merit process has ever gone back to selecting judges by popular vote. Here’s what we found out in comparing the two methods: We found that judges selected by the merit process, for the most part, are better qualified to carry out the important responsibilities and to make the important decisions that we expect them to make. We found that elected judges are disciplined at a much higher rate than are judges who are appointed under the merit process. In fact, since 1998 nearly three times as many elected judges have been disciplined as appointed judges. We found that the merit process has resulted in greater diversity in terms of more women and minorities on the bench. Judges, especially minorities and women, have been appointed at a greater rate than elected and have gained greater access to the court through the appointment process. More than 80 percent of the women judges, African-American judges and Hispanic judges were first appointed to the appellate and trial court vacancies through the merit selection process. And, very importantly, we found that under the merit process the voters actually will have a stronger voice in deciding which judges remain on the bench than with the present system, where most trial judges face no opposition when they seek re-election. On the September ballot, we did not see the names of the great majority of judges whose terms had expired. If voters go to the polls and the candidates names are not on the ballot because they have no opposition, then no vote takes place. The independence of our judiciary — free and totally unaffected by political pressure — is the cornerstone of American democracy. In writing our Constitution, the founding fathers recognized the need for judicial protection of every citizen’s individual liberties. They also recognized the importance of the balance of power among the three branches of government. At no time — especially in Florida today — has preserving the independence of the judiciary been more critical. Above all, we must preserve and protect the right to vote. This ballot question does not eliminate or hinder that right in any way, but rather it enhances it to ensure that voters always have the opportunity to vote on a judge whether or not he or she is opposed at the time of re-election. What we are seeing now is that, for the most part, judicial elections amount to little more than campaign fund-raising and expenditures and popularity contests. Simply stated, the individuals who aspire to be judges should not be politicians. They should make decisions based on the facts of each case, not on political ideology or personal positions. By voting “Yes” on the ballot questions regarding circuit and county court trial judges, we will be sending the message that in Florida justice is not for sale.

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